Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Metroid: Other M, and Fear For Samus's Soul

I wish I had an infinite amount of time to play video games. I don't even need an infinite amount of money... there's such a great time-to-money ratio with a good console game, I think I spent a fair, responsible amount of money on video games, affordable on my normal salary, and still be happy, as long as I had infinite time to spend playing them. That's how calculus works, right?

If I had infinite time to spend playing video games, and if, theoretically, I could distribute that time however I saw fit, I definitely would have played through Metroid: Other M by now, and I'd have revisited Prime and Fusion, and maybe gone as far back as the 8- and 16-bit games, just for background. That's just how fascinating I find the whole Other M debate, which clumsily sideswipes some ideas I've expressed about Samus, in a previous post, which I still think is a lot better than most of the stuff I write now.

For a general overview, you can check out a few key texts on the game:

MetaCritic has it at 79%, which sounds respectable until you realize that other Nintendo key properties on major consoles tend to score in the mid-to-high 90% range. Most of the reviews are lukewarm on the concept, cold on the execution and dialogue, and (with some exceptions) reasonably sympathetic to the new control scheme.

However, one of the major dissenting reviews turned out to be the flash point for a debate on this entry's place in the series. This was Abbie Heppe's negative (2/5) review on G4tv.com. Abbie criticized the controls a bit, but this seemed like an afterthought, coming at the end of a long critique of the game's respect for Samus's character and her place in the canon.

This review has been rejoined: the vast majority of commentary I've read is unsympathetic to Abbie's point of view, preferring to defend the game and either excuse the story or minimize its importance. Of these, the response at Dromble is the longest and most vehement; the poster's name appears to be "Fred," but it's not officially attributed to anyone, so I'll just call it the Dromble review. It's an enthusiastic piece, but seems a bit clumsy, mostly concerned with using obscure references in the series' canon to answer vaporous versions of Abbie's argument, which is so generalized in the response that it becomes a Straw Man.

Side-note: there's also this debate on OBJECTION, which does a decent job of recapping the argument from a middle-of-the-road perspective. I LOVE the use of Phoenix Wright animations, especially at 2:35, when Kenshiro breaks into a little bit of an "America needs more maps" stutter.

Anyway, I would write about this debate for a week if I had the time, and didn't feel totally phony about it. As it is, I haven't played the game, and don't have the time to invest in it, and even if I had, I would want to play back through some of the other recent franchise entries, as well... it seems to me that Samus has been changing slowly for a few games now, taking on a more subtle and sensitive inner life, and her space-world has been changing around her. I could spend a whole post discussing the importance of consistency and continuity within video games, and science fiction, and fiction in general; I could spend another chunk of time talking about Samus as a modern-era Samurai, and about her mixed motivations as a bounty-hunter-peace-keeper in a dark intergalactic future. I could use this as a jump-off point to talk about authorial intention, and whether, theoretically, an author (like Metroid's creator, Yokio Sakamoto) can betray their own work (George Lucas being the paradigm case). Unfortunately, I'll only be able to fit so much into this discussion... so I guess I'll start from the key point in all the exchanges, the scene of Samus's encounter with the alien Ridley. Warning: I've spoiled it for myself, and I will probably do so for you, as well.

You can actually see the controversial cut-scene here.

Now, I was initially skeptical of Abbie's criticism, since I tend to give creators a good bit of license with their creations, and I can accept some pretty broad and unpredictable behavior from a key character. But watching the scene on YouTube, my visceral reaction was: who is this woman? Where is my Samus, always so steadfast in the face of Metroids and Space Pirates? And who is this man coming to her aid, barking one-liners at their shared adversary, and making an immediate belittling remark about Ridley "knowing how to treat a lady"? It's hard to work through those emotions. It's hard to see one of your heroes falter.

Now I'm willing to give Abbie's criticism a bit more credit. We've never had a thorough exploration of Samus's past, but make no mistake: we knew her (I find Abbie's own assertion that she has "only the personality that we have bestowed upon her" to be dubious). She was always alone, flying a single-person ship, shaped like her own helmet... this was pride bordering on narcissism. She ventured into all those planets and compounds without any thought of calling in backup. She has always been a loner. And she has always been a professional, first and foremost, entering each game with a target and an objective. Fix your ship and escape, find this exotic artifact, hunt down this scourge and wipe it from the universe. Take whatever steps are necessary: flood part of the planet, destroy its core, spend hours in the tunnels looking for an alien supplement that keeps you alive in molten temperatures. Shoot the enemy with missiles and power-bombs, and just hope that you can get out when the planet starts to implode. Samus Aran was positively cavalier.

Obviously, these aren't feminine traits. Indeed, claiming that Samus has ever been feminine beyond her mere anatomy is (self-)deception. The fact that young men like me found her hot doesn't prove that she's innately feminine... it just proves that we were gullible enough to fall for whatever 8-bit body was put in front of us. And in this regard, Samus is a monad (a symbolic reduction) for her universe as a whole: she lives in a post-human version of outer space, where technology is so dominant, it renders biological sex meaningless. Samus has a sex, but she has no gender, and her opponents are the same: Ridley has been referred to as a female at some point in the past, and now (s)he's accepted as a male. We could never tell the difference between the female and the male Metroids, and when one of them spawned a baby, we barely registered that as a gender signifier. They may reproduce asexually, after all.

In fact, Mother Brain, Samus's original opponent, is perhaps the best illustration of the post-human nature of her world. Mother Brain is considered female, being the "mother" of the Space Pirate legion... but what makes her a mother? She has no determining features at all... no behavioral patterns considered feminine, no physical body to provide signifiers. Mother Brain, the massive and evil and perversely biological counterpart to Samus, is proof that in this universe, gender is nothing but an empty symbolic distinction, unrelated to physical sex, and in fact, divorced from reality in general.

Those who feel some aspect of Samus is betrayed are mostly talking about series continuity... but in this debate, there is a lot of gender subtext. Samus's return to her childhood state, her sudden panic, and her manly rescuer referring to her as "a lady" to her foe -- these are a sudden resurgence of signifiers for femininity and weakness, suddenly wrought upon a character who was always defined outside the male/female binary. This is what motivates Abbie Heppe to frame so much of her review in feminist terms:
The point is to flesh out one of the most iconic (and nonsexualized) female characters in gaming history and yet the outcome is insulting to both Samus and her fans.

When she isn’t submissive and obedient, the flashbacks portray her as bratty and childish and the whole mess smacks of sexism.

The gap between "discontinuity" and "sexism" is an easy one to bridge, and though Abbie doesn't make the argument explicit, the reasoning is all there. Samus's personality seems wholly different in this iteration of the series, despite the fact that it's the first time her history has been explored... so what's to account for this difference? Why does Samus seem to have suddenly dramatically changed her behavioral patterns, from dominant loner to obedient subordinate, and from rock-solid, nerves-of-steel professional to soul-searching drama queen? One sad but logical answer is that the people who wrote this game tried to furnish her with a personal history, but their own gender stereotypes were the only tools they brought to bear. Conventional solutions are the bane of creative accomplishment.

Here I am, responding to the whole situation based on one YouTube clip. I'd like to defend myself against the inevitable criticism of talking out my ass (not wholly unwarranted) by mediating my response a little. First of all, I'm mostly trying to register sympathy with Abbie's point of view, but I don't necessarily agree with her review, because I haven't played the game, and it might just be fun enough that I would stop caring about the story. Alternately, perhaps there's some twist in the narrative flow of Metroid: Other M justifies Samus's uncharacteristic behavior. Perhaps my insufficient experience with the Prime games have left me out of the loop of Samus's personality. For the sake of the series, I hope the former is true; after all, Samus's ungendered, posthuman nature is what I always found so compelling about her.

Or maybe it's a misstep on the part of the writers of a new Metroid game. And maybe that's okay, too, because my Samus will always survive, in my head and at the far end of my controller.


jnkjn said...

100% agreed. The Ridley scene wasn't the only sexist part either, the whole game is just a big mess of the creators trying to give her a personality but just making her a stupid little girl.

sp calvin said...

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